Geopolitics Of Cyberspace National Security Implications Information Technology Essay

A nations reliance on cyberspace will only continue to grow in the upcoming years. Cyberspace along with the many networks that connect to it now supports the global economy. This national dependency must be managed with continuous efforts to secure the cyber systems that control many nations’ infrastructures. Although there might not be a clear agreement on what constitutes cyberspace, many scholars and government officials agree on the impact on cyberspace on a countries national security. The threats imposed in cyber space are far reaching and varied. These threats are causing governments to rethink their landscape of power as the increased use of cyberspace redefines the geopolitical boundaries. Developing nations are not exempt from this change. Although the use of cyberspace is not as prevalent in developing countries, the current growth rates imply that governments of developing nations need to start applying their foresight in preparation for an impending change within the virtual world. Various recommendations are considered along with strategic actions to mitigate the impact of cyberspace on the national security of developing nations. This paper seeks to analyse the impact cyberspace has on the national security of developing nations.


The mode people interact, the manner in which government operates, and the way in which national defence is conducted has changed. These crucial activities have come to rely on an interdependent network of information technology infrastructures called cyberspace.

We live in an era of ever-changing global opportunities and challenges. With these new opportunities and challenges come new threats that government need to contend with. One such threat is the growing use of cyberspace. Malicious actors in cyberspace take on many forms including individuals, criminal cartels, terrorists, or nation states. [1] While actors take many forms, they all seek to exploit vulnerabilities created by the design or implementation of software, hardware, networks, and protocols to achieve a wide range of political or economic effects. As our reliance on cyberspace increases so too does the scope of damage that malicious actors can impose. This paper serves to contextualise the concept of cyberspace. It further investigates the geopolitics of cyberspace and its resultant threats that it poses to states. Within the context of developing nations, the paper also explores the impact of cyberspace on national security and concludes with high level recommendations for developing nations who seek to control the impact of cyberspace on its national security.


The term Cyberspace has been part of modern day speech for more then two decades, since William Gibson used it to describe “a consensual hallucination” in his sci-fi novel, Neuromancer. But in the 21st Century, there is certainly no consensus on its meaning in the operational world. If looking at defining things in the operational world the approach of Gibson will obviously not suffice-the approaches that we develop towards this domain will shape how it interacts with other domains and affects relationships among the other elements and instruments of power, especially how humans and the organizations we create use that power. The march of technology coupled with resultant progress guarantees that even while we argue this definition-irrespective of exactly how we define it now and refine it in the future–our use of cyberspace has already reached the point where an increasingly wide range of our political, economic, social and military activities are dependent on it and thus making it vulnerable to both interruption of its use of its capabilities [2] . According to (Waltz, 1998) [3] the dimensions of cyberspace refers to the middle layer-the information infrastructure-of the three realms of the information warfare battlespace. These three realms are the physical (facilities, nodes), the information infrastructure, and the perceptual.

Another explanation refers to cyberspace as that “intangible place between computers where information momentarily exists on its route from one end of the global network to the other….the ethereal reality, an infinity of electrons speeding down copper or glass fibres at the speed of light….Cyberspace is borderless…[but also] think of cyberspace as being divided into groups of local or regional cyberspace-hundreds and millions of smaller cyberspaces all over the world.” [4] Schwartau [5] provides a similar definition when he makes reference to cyberspace as distinct entities, with clearly defined electronic borders. With Small-C cyberspaces consisting of personal, corporate or organizational spaces and Big-C cyberspace as the National Information Infrastructure. When both are added together with threads of connectivity you have all of cyberspace.

All of these various approaches combine to suggest that cyberspace is more than digital information and computers. A definition that certainly covers all aspects of Cyberspace and which is relevant to the discussion is from Kuehl who referred to cyberspace as “an operational domain whose distinctive and unique character is framed by the use of electronics and the electromagnetic spectrum to create, store, modify, exchange and exploit information via interconnected information-communication technology (ICT) based systems and their associated infrastructures.” [6] The physical and virtual space is the location for these networked and interconnected information systems and they reside within and outside of geographic boundaries. Its users have a wide range: from entire nation states and their different departments and communities down to lone individuals and various transnationals who may not profess allegiance to any national entity or traditional organization. Cyberspace refers to the non physical environment created by joined computers interoperating on a network. In cyberspace interaction is similar to the real world, except interaction in cyberspace does not require movement of a physical nature beyond typing. Information can be exchanged in delayed time or real time, and people can share, shop, research, explore, play or even work.


The  last  few  years  have  seen  a  remarkable  surge  in  the  degree  of  concern  publicly  expressed  by  government  officials  regarding  “national  security  threats”  in  cyberspace. The  Bush  Administration  began  development  of  a  Comprehensive  National Cybersecurity  Initiative  (CNCI)  in  January  2008. [7] The  Obama  Administration  has  followed  with  a  Cyberspace  Policy  Review  and  a  promise  to  appoint  a  “Cyber  Czar”  to  coordinate  a  federal  government  response. [8] As technology runs along, many nations’ policies are left trailing as some even question whether a threat exists at all.

For instance, as part of the National Strategy for Homeland Security for the US, the National Strategy to Secure Cyberspace forms a crucial component. This strategy was drafted in reaction to the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States. The plan advises a number of security practices as well as promotion of cyber security education.

As part of the plans strategic intent, The National Strategy to Secure Cyberspace identifies three objectives: (1) Prevent cyber attacks against America’s critical infrastructures; (2) Reduce national vulnerability to cyber attacks; and (3) Minimize damage and recovery time from cyber attacks that do occur. Effectively, the National Strategy encourages organisations to regularly review their technology security plans, and individuals who use the Internet to add firewalls and the appropriate anti-virus software to their systems. Calling for a single federal centre to help detect, monitor and analyse attacks, and for expanded cyber security research and improved government-industry cooperation. [9] 

No doubt one of the most challenging issues for international security today is cyberspace and its introduction of the information revolution. There is no single assessment that can evaluate every aspect of this issue however this paper seeks to highlight the dangers and risks posed by the information revolution that will impact on the national security of developing nations.

Three trends in this information revolution are relevant to strategic concerns: ubiquitous cell phone connectivity, transparency, and cyber warfare. [10] These trends will be further explored.

Ubiquitous Connectivity

The global penetration of cell phone users has exceeded all expectations. Places such as Africa and rural India are plunging into the information revolution with the help of cell phones and wireless connectivity. The full effect of ubiquitous communication via cell phone or internet can only be guessed, but some effects are already noticeable. As was done in Burma, Thailand and the Philippines, large political groups are capable of mobilising their members in protest. More recently, in the Us-Iraq war insurgents targeted communication towers to eliminate services as locals were using them to provide intelligence on insurgent identities and whereabouts. Social networking sites such as Twitter, Facebook, Linkedln make it possible to reach out and touch ‘everyone’. Before fears of the internet was based on the notion that terrorists would disrupt the internet because it is a symbol of open societies. On the contrary, they have adopted it as a means of communication and recruitment. For example there is more then 10 000 jihadist web sites setup to transmit messages, motivate sympathizers, and recruit new adherents. Many terrorists drawn to Iraq and Afghanistan were attracted through these sites. Despite advances in internet track and trace which has to a certain extent enabled USA and Great Britain intelligence to identify would-be terrorists, these means of cross border communication still flourishes.

2) Transparency

U.S. forces in Vietnam could enter and leave a village before anyone outside the area was aware of their presence. Given today’s ubiquitous and instantaneous nature of communications systems, such opacity has disappeared. In fact, it is highly unlikely that anything on a future urban battlefield can be kept secret for longer than it would take to establish an internet or cell phone connection.

Global transparency is increasing. The launch of several satellites with resolutions better than 1 meter makes quality imagery available to anyone with access to the World Wide Web. Technology giants such as Google and Microsoft supply access to these imagery (at no or very little cost) via their Internet-based applications, Although governments have tried to restrict or control what images are displayed, many have failed – no place on Earth can be hidden. Images have also been used by nongovernmental organizations to monitor disaster sites and hold governments accountable for sins of omission and commission. The ability to get the word out with cell phones and the Internet makes official secrets difficult to maintain. In the case of Zimbabwe, where repression of political protesters and the press would have gone unnoticed, transparency and connectivity revealed the problems internationally and made the world aware, despite efforts by the government to restrict information shared with the outside world.

Cyberspace is also proving to be a forum to proliferate ideas which in turn can lead to openness and equality. People in more oppressive countries are exposed to what is happening in first would countries; as a result established ideas are challenged or modified and government are put under pressure to conform or change. Ironically the openness and accessibility of the internet has permitted repression as well as justices to be voluntarily outsource; the recent case of a Chinese citizen whose family in China was threatened and harassed by pro-Beijing peers because she protested repression on Tibet over the internet.

Cyber warfare

Information Technology and the internet are increasingly vulnerable to cyber attacks. Much of what was once controlled by hardware and the physical architecture is now controlled by software which makes cyber attack increasingly possible and more difficult to detect. This was the case in Estonia where in reaction to the government’s decision in 2007 to move a Russian World War II memorial, protestors mobilized thousands and possibly millions of computers to send virtual packets to Web servers of government offices and national banks, with the intent of knocking many offline. With few exceptions, these computer owners were unwitting participants in the attack. These cyber tactics were organized and executed in hours. No one knows their origin: Estonia blamed Russia, Russia stonewalled Estonia, and the only person convicted was an Estonian of Russian descent.

Another common occurrence is state sponsored cyber attacks. China is often cited as being in the vanguard of cyber espionage. Recently, state-sponsored hackers placed malicious code on the internet. The malicious code was able to open data files of users computers, sending huge amount of information to the hackers. Victims of this tactic were users worldwide including military bases, defence contractors, and private businesses. These cyber attacks have prompted the U.S to reduce the number of government gateways with access to the open internet.

The issues of network insecurity will remain a problem in the future even as computers become more secure – hacking tools become more advances. Many developing nations, such as South Africa, have chosen to rely on primitive (yet effective) methods of security such as disconnecting critical systems from the outside world or refusing to use web-based systems. If cyber espionage is ever declared an act of war, it will have world-changing implications. What then should governments understand about cyber attacks?


Cyber warfare has been defined by government security expert Richard A. Clarke, in his book Cyber War (May 2010), as “actions by a nation-state to penetrate another nation’s computers or networks for the purposes of causing damage or disruption.” [11] The Economist describes cyber warfare as “the fifth domain of warfare, after land, sea, air and space”. [12] Cyber warfare operates outside the domains of land, sea, air and space and its sole mission is the conquering of cyberspace.

The objectives of a cyber attack include the following four areas [13] :

1. Loss of integrity, such that information could be modified improperly;

2. Loss of availability, where mission critical information systems are rendered unavailable to authorized users;

3. Loss of confidentiality, where critical information is disclosed to unauthorized users; and,

4. Physical destruction, where information systems create actual physical harm through commands that cause deliberate malfunctions.

Cyber attacks are often viewed as the domain of governments and cyber espionage. With attacks restricted to highly classified environments. However, information and tools to penetrate computer networks are readily available in the civilian world to anyone with internet access. Non governmental actors have already participated in real world attacks on governments, although not on a global or destabilizing scale as yet [14] . It is not possible to build strong defences without acquiring a solid understanding of how attacks work and how effective they might be. There are currently millions of sites available on the internet that provides procedures for hacking purposes. From a government perspective, classifying such tools and procedures is important to protecting sensitive activities and network vulnerabilities. Such knowledge is crucial to protect government networks and infrastructure from attacks. Many senior members in government need to be educated on cyber security. This should not only be the concern of technical personnel but also of military officials and policymakers.

Advancements in border and physical security have encouraged terrorists and extremist to use alternate means of attack. Internet and security vulnerabilities for many nations especially developing nations may make cyber attacks a more effective means of attack. The first step in any analysis of cyberspace implications for national security must be to chart the range of cyber threats, by which is meant either security challenges made via ICT equipment and networks, or challenges made to those equipment and networks.


The Annual Threat Assessment observed that “terrorists increasingly use the internet to communicate, conduct operational planning, proselytize, recruit, train and to obtain logistical and financial support. That is a growing and increasing concern.” [15] IBM has reported that, during the first half of 2005, criminal-driven computer security attacks increased by 50 percent. Of these attacks, public agencies of government were targeted the most. [16] These facts rightly imply that cyber attacks are a major criminal activity.

The nature of cyberspace allows for decentralized networked groups to pose as threats to the traditional hierarchical structures. Globalize communications and computing infrastructure combined with collaborative software permit hostile transnationals such as terrorists, rogue corporations, anti globalization movements, hackers, crime syndicates and others that act on behalf of nations or other entities-to threaten national security and stability. Decentralized groups can synchronize activity globally without regard to political borders or local government control. The traditional security interventions based on geographic borders, sovereign control, and unilateral response to global threats by individual nations are not capable of countering such groups.

Many nations, however took comfort from the fact that the resources needed to pose a formidable threat in cyberspace to a nation would be the resources of a nation. Therefore nations could be held responsible or assigned accountability if such an attack took place. However, recent improvements in network technologies enabled non-state actors to operate without respect for laws, borders, or governments. Technologies enable such groups to threaten not only a nation’s sovereignty but also international peace. This is testimony to what Tony Blair said during a hearing on the national intelligence community’s annual threat assessment; Blair began his written testimony focusing on the threats posed by cyber attacks. Noting the growing importance of the Internet and communications infrastructure to the federal government, the economy and U.S. society, he warned that “this critical infrastructure is severely threatened.” [17] He further mentioned the threats are multifaceted and come from “nation states, terrorist networks, organized criminal groups, individuals, and other cyber actors with varying combinations of access, technical sophistication and intent. Many have the capabilities to target elements of the US information infrastructure for intelligence collection, intellectual property theft, or disruption.” He added addressing the problem will require a “coordinated and collaborative effort” involving the federal government, the private sector and other countries.


Will cyber space erase geopolitics? Those who argue that claim that cyberspace creates institutions and interests that transcend national lines. Such institutions and interests both weaken a nation’s ability to mobilize resources for nationalistic reasons and also create valuable ties that war would destroy, raising the cost of war which in turn lowers its likelihood.

A different argument is: cyberspace will tend to eliminate geopolitics through its influence on military security, rather than (or at least in addition to) its influence on international politics. Such an argument may seem paradoxical; for it is a fundamental cliché of nation-state theory that trade is a promoter of international cooperation while security promotes international competition. So, if cyberspace does not erase geopolitics through trade, why would it tend to do so through security?

The argument begins with what has been called the revolution in military affairs and extracts from it new instruments of national power that erase geography, culminating in new instruments for international security management that tend to erase classic geographical formulations. An entirely new form of virtual weaponry is transforming the dynamics of geopolitics.

The threat of cyber warfare is not new. What makes it more complex today is that cyber weapons are not only in hands of rogue states and the enemy, but they are being exploited by isolated individuals to wild-eyed terrorists. The impact of cyberspace goes beyond digital diplomacy between states and political mobilisation inside countries. Included now is virtual weaponry which has introduced an entirely new form of warfare that is transforming the very dynamics of geopolitics.

This new global reality is shaping the Geopolitics of nations and is -broadly speaking- characterised by three significant shifts: 1. from states to individuals; 2. from real-world to virtual mobilisation and power; and 3. from old media to new media. [18] In reaction to these shifts countries are censoring or deploying Web platforms to assert their influence. A better understanding of the three significant shifts is crucial to a better understanding of the geopolitics of cyberspace.

States to Individuals

The first shift is from a state-centric approach in international relations towards a new dynamic which involves a widely disparate number of non-state actors, even isolated individuals, who can use platforms on the web to exert influence, inflict violence and threaten states.

This shift is not new, as many states loose their ‘exclusive’ status on the global stage but the impact of the internet is now accelerating it. What is unique about cyberspace geopolitics, however, is that Web networks like YouTube and Google empower not only states and non-state organisations, but also isolated individuals, who can, due to low entry barriers, act upon global events -both constructively and destructively-. The advances in cyberspace have allowed individuals, even those with little or no resources, to exert influence and act on the same playing field as powerful states even though these states might control massive military and economic resources. The incident involving Russia in 2009, shows how a lone hacker (or blogger) can play the cyber role of David against the state role of Goliath. The Russian government at that time allegedly inflicted a denial-of-service attack on the social network Twitter in order to neutralise a single blogger who was located in Georgia. The Kremlins’ launch of a cyber attack against one individual resulted in users world-wide experiencing a paralysing brown-out.

In previous models of cyberspace, the main actors have been either states or easily identifiable non-state actors (like al-Qaeda). In cyberspace geopolitics the identity of individual actors in the global system is frequently not apparent, and sometimes a mystery that is baffling to many. China and Russia is often accused by government when hackers and cyberspies attack, but its perpetrators and origins are never verified with total certainty. It is therefore possible to be a significant actor in the global system, and inflict major damage on traditional states, without ever becoming known, let alone punished and apprehended.

Real-world to Virtual Mobilisation and Power

The second shift is from ‘real-world’ to ‘virtual’ forms of mobilisation, action and aggression.

A case in point is that of IRAN. Cyberspace users in that country provided a powerful example of how cyberspace provides power to the periphery. In Iran, a regime known for its authoritarian stance, was so destabilised at first by what was labelled the ‘Twitter Revolution’, that it was forced to physically repress the countries own population to prevent its own overthrow. In liberal democracies, internet platforms like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter are now indispensable tools of civic organisation electoral mobilisation. All governments are now acutely aware that their citizens can use these tools to voice their views, organise action and even challenge their authority.

With regards to coercive power, we are seeing the same shift from military ‘hard power’ to ‘virtual power’. There is one important aspect that differentiates Virtual power from ‘soft power’: whereas the latter conveys values through culture, consumer behaviour and lifestyle (from Mickey Mouse to McDonald’s), the former (virtual power) can be found exclusively in cyberspace [19] . A country like America is a soft-power superpower; however in the sphere of virtual power it is more vulnerable.

Today, many militaries are realising that they may need to rely less on giant arms manufacturers and high profile generals but more on computer geeks. Even the US army is now using popular Web platforms like Facebook and YouTube as recruitment tools and is looking specifically for certain IT skills set. As the new generation of what is referred to as the so-called ‘millennials’ progress into various positions of responsibility within the public sector including the military, these individuals bring with them powerful cyber skills that will be instrumentally useful in warfare as well as within various aspects of espionage.

Move from Old Media to New Media

The third shift is from old media (like CNN, BBC and Al-Jazeera) to new media like mobile internet, wireless web sites like Twitter, Google and YouTube as effective platforms of global diplomacy, communication and the shaping of opinions.

Old media have been the privileged forum of global diplomacy. In the past, governments have used mass media to wage information warfare. Prominent government officials have been willing to appear on traditional media (such as BBC and CNN) to be interviewed about their policies and positions, and various actors both state and non-state have exploited the global media to stage events -and pull off stunts- to attract attention to their causes. However, this era of dominance by old media is coming to an end.

There is a shift in favour of new media over old media. Cyberspace provides powerful platforms and effective tools for mobilisation -or ‘digital activism’. An excellent example of a shift towards new media is the Gaza crisis which tool place in 2008. Shortly after Israel launched its military operations the supporters of Israel as well as Palestine used the internet to lobby support. Many of these cyberspace initiatives were the work of individuals. But the propaganda campaign was also joined by states in an attempt to get out their message. The Israeli Army, for example, made use of the web to setup its own YouTube video channel, this in an effort to win the global Public Relations battle. They uploaded videos showing carefully pinpointed strikes against terrorist targets.

Forced to react to the impact of these cyberspace geopolitics shifts, states are alternatively censoring or deploying platforms that are web based to accomplish their goals and assert their influence. What has radically changed with Cyberspace Geopolitics is that old-fashioned state boundaries no longer exist, surveillance is now a two-way mirror. Actors operating in cyberspace, who can be individuals, can now spy on, and even threaten, their own governments and other states. The shift from hard to virtual power, from states to individuals, and from old media to new media has changed the dynamics of global politics forever.


Where cyberspace and national security are concerned, there is a certain amount of disconnect between technology and the public policy that should govern them. Science and technology should be more closely informed by public policy, while a technologically informed political leadership should be better placed to meet the cyber challenge.

However, knowing that most of the Internet users live in the western world makes it difficult to claim that the Internet’s role as a medium is globally powerful. On the contrary it is rather limited to the very small percentage of world’s wealthy population who own a computer, or may have access to one. This can be seen from the number of internet users in Africa as compared to the rest of the world in 2008.


There may be a significant impact of the Internet on the global level however, in many parts of the developing world; there is still a tremendous shortage of telephones, let alone computers. There are fewer telephones in sub-Saharan Africa than in Manhattan [20] , and for the most people in the world, the World Wide Web and the entire cyberspace is just another unobtainable American toy.

Contemporary world economies and societies are greatly influenced by transnational corporations that are replacing the nation-state as arbitrators of economy in an emergent stage of transnational capitalism that erases previous boundaries of space and time that produces an ever-expanding global marketplace and division of labour, with novel forms of speculative capital, new forms of production and distribution, rapidly expanding emigration and class restructuring, and an array of new consumer goods, information technologies, and services. [

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